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Boris Johnson’s audacity during this crisis continues to amaze

The House of Lords. Photograph: Parliament TV. - Credit: Archant

LIZ GERARD is convinced there is nothing that Boris Johnson will not disrupt, traduce or usurp.

Is there any institution convention, tradition – up to and including the monarchy – that Boris Johnson will not disrupt, traduce, usurp? We know the answer from the unlawful prorogation of parliament and the lying to the Queen to achieve it. Yet still, he has this capacity to amaze with his audacity. The latest example being the ‘prime minister’s Honours’ published at the weekend.

Forget for a moment the controversy over the recipients. The repayment of personal and political debts have always been part of this game; think Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender’s Lavender List. ‘Twas ever thus. Inequality and entitlement have also always been part of the game. For those in the right occupations, honours are part of the career progression, culminating in a K for the time-serving civil servant who makes permanent secretary or a damehood for the actress who has worn enough Sunday night bustles and lorgnettes.

But honours are supposed to be more than that; they are to recognise people in all walks of life, from the lollipop lady and sub-postmaster to the entrepreneurs who turn a kitchen table hobby into a viable business. These are the people who have been done down by Johnson’s latest caprice. People who should already have been recognised, most likely by being appointed an MBE – the lowest rung on the honours ladder – but who have had to wait while his chums and donors troop into the Lords.

Every June, we officially celebrate the anniversary of the coronation with the Trooping the Colour, a flypast and the Queen’s Birthday Honours. This year, thanks to the pandemic, the Colour was trooped quietly in Windsor and the flypast was limited. The honours were absent. The PM had announced in May that the list would not be published until the autumn to ensure, he said, it reflected the Covid effort and came ‘at a time when we can properly celebrate the achievements of all those included’.

Was the delay reasonable? Yes, if it allowed officials to concentrate on more pressing matters. But Johnson acknowledged the list had been agreed before the pandemic struck. Would it have been strange to have a list in June that didn’t recognise Covid heroes? Not really. People would understand the list had been prepared before they had done their bit and that their time would come later – as happens every Olympic year when our summer medallists are honoured in midwinter. Indeed, if the PM wished, he could produce a special coronavirus honours list any time he wished – as happened after the Falklands conflict and the Gulf wars.

Would it not seem tone deaf to be knighting ageing rock stars when hundreds were still dying every day? Possibly. But the death rate was falling by June, businesses were reopening. In the cautiously optimistic mood the PM was seeking to promote at that time, postponing the honours seems counter-narrative. If he had to say anything at all about them, this was an ideal opportunity – the very day after the Queen dubbed Captain Tom in a special one-off ceremony – for Johnson to send a ‘keep calm and carry on’ message while explaining the Covid effort would be properly recognised once the virus had been well and truly beaten.

There would have been positives in it – while the honours posed no risk of spreading the virus, but they might have spread some good cheer, even if investitures had to be deferred. Instead the PM broke the link between the Queen’s official birthday and the honouring of her subjects, suggesting – knowingly or otherwise – a level of contempt for them both. He may have thought he was doing the right thing, but if ‘circumstances’ lead you to treat a fixed event in the national calendar as a moveable feast when you don’t absolutely have to, it will be easier to move it again when it suits your purposes in the future. That is how traditions are destroyed, institutions brought down.

Meanwhile, the public health emergency did not stop him thanking his Brexit friends and sending a further 36 people into an overcrowded House of Lords. These were officially the dissolution honours – albeit seven months late – but only the Telegraph described them as such. The Times said that Johnson was ‘marking his anniversary as leader’; the BBC called it ‘the Prime Minister’s honours’. And everyone just took it as normal. There were raised eyebrows over some of the people he was elevating, but no questions or explanations of Johnson’s power to dole out baubles – or not, as with the Birthday Honours – whenever he fancies.

The shamelessness of the latest list demonstrates how he and his cohort are confident they can do whatever they like, to hell with any backlash. There are, we are told, ‘more to come’ in the autumn, presumably under cover of the Covid heroes.

And how will the coronavirus effort be reflected? Will the class system again hold sway with knighthoods and CBEs for the doctors and specialists, while nurses are palmed off with the MBE? Who can say which paramedic’s efforts were greater than another’s? Will porters, cleaners, binmen and carers be recognised? We can only hope. I’d like to see damehoods and knighthoods for the care home owners who resisted pressure to take untested hospital patients and instigated their own procedures to keep residents safe long before Matt Hancock came up with his imaginary ‘protective ring’. But you don’t get rewarded for defying this government.

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